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tv   Frontline  PBS  January 19, 2012 2:30am-3:30am EST

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>> narrator: the world watched helplessly as a tsunami took down the fukushima nuclear power plant. (explosion) >> radiation levels are extremely high. >> narrator: what went wrong? and will it cripple japan's nuclear program? (speaking japanese) >> pretty soon japan will have essentially no reactors operating. >> narrator: the aftershocks of the meltdown are reverberating around the world.
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>> the germans are very much afraid of nuclear power. they don't want it. they hate it. >> shut down before the meltdown! >> indian point is right here. >> miles o'brien: right on the fault line. >> narrator: correspondent miles o'brien investigates if america is prepared for a nuclear disaster. >> the likelihood of a fukushima accident happening here is very, very low, but we know it's not impossible. >> narrator: tonight on frontlin"nuclear aftershocks." >> if it can happen to japan, it can happen anywhere. >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful
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world. and by reva and david logan, committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by tfrontline journalism fund, with a grant from millicent bell through the millicent and eugene bell foundation. major funding for this program is provided by the alfred p. sloan foundation, supporting public understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
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>> o'brien: passed. there's something that's both scary and awesome about nuclear energy. >> it will you give the rate at which you're receiving radiation as well as how much you've accumulated. >> o'brien: oh, i see. thanks to the magic of nuclear fission, this plant, indian point, generates about a quarter of new york city's electricity, with no greenhouse gases or air pollution. but the reality is indian point's nuclear technology is not cutting edge; it's old.
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>> so this is one of three emergency diesel generators. >> o'brien: the two working reactors here came on line some 40 years ago. it looks like an locomotive engine. westinghouse makes those, so i guess that makes sense. how many of these do you have, first of all? old as the plant is, indian point's owner, entergy, wants to run it for another 20 years. and that makes some people uneasy. after all, this plant is in the most densely populated region in the u.s.-- times square is only about 35 miles away. >> you are 35 miles from indian point nuclear power plant with twice as much spent fuel as fukushima daiichi and no evacuation plan for new york city. what would you do in a meltdown? >> o'brien: since the nuclear meltdown at fukushima, japan, the fight over indian point has grown much more contentious.
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>> you're all expecting us to take you seriously when you have never, never denied a license extension. >> o'brien: at issue in this controversy are major worries about the evacuation plan and, according to critics, a series of unresolved safety issues. >> indian point's not safe when it doesn't meet safety regulations. right now it doesn't meet safety regulations. those known safety problems need to be fixed. >> o'brien: but proponents argue that new york city needs the energy. it's become a classic new york political brawl. entergy has hired former mayor rudy giuliani to make its case. >> that's clean, reliable and lower-cost electricity that powers our region and the greatest city on earth. >> o'brien: in the other corner is new york governor andrew cuomo. >> governor andrew cuomo says the plant's location on a fault line makes it a disaster waiting to happen. >> i understand the power and the benefit. i also understand the risk, and this plant in this proximity to
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new york city was never a good risk. >> o'brien: the long-simmering fight over indian point-- and nuclear power in general-- came to a head after the catastrophic nuclear disaster that took place half a world away in fukushima, japan. on the afternoon of march 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., a massive earthquake shook japan. >> we just had a major earthquake. >> o'brien: the event was captured in real time on cell phones and security cameras. the epicenter of the so-called tohoku quake was 80 miles off japan's northeast coast.
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nuclear plants around the country automatically shut down-- including the three operating reactors at the fukushima daiichi complex run by the tokyo electric power company-- tepco-- the largest utility in japan. the massive earthquake triggered blackouts throughout the area. inside the plant, tepco workers lost electric power, vital for pumping cooling water onto the hot nuclear cores. but as planned, 12 emergency diesel generators kicked in-- giant locomotive-size machines like this-- producing backup electricity to run all the plant's safety systems. but what happened next changed everything. >> everything was working fine until tsunami came. >> o'brien: barely half an hour after the quake, the first of a series of tsunami waves hit
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japan's coast. the world watched as the waves washed over 1,300 miles of coastline, destroying communities and killing thousands. then, at about 3:30, just 45 minutes after the earthquake, one of the giant waves inundated the fukushima nuclear plant. the plant's seawall was designed to block a 17-foot tsunami. the actual wave was at least three times that height. >> i was really surprised when i saw the picture showing the peak of that tsunami wave when it hit the plant. it exceeded the height of reactor building.
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it began to destroy everything. >> o'brien: the emergency diesel generators that had been powering the safety systems, were destroyed in the deluge. the giant wave also knocked out crucial wires, circuit breakers and transformers and washed one of the generators' fuel tanks out to sea. >> they had no power. zero, nothing. it's what's called a station blackout that is the most difficult situation to deal with at a power plant like this. >> o'brien: trapped in a station blackout-- without any electricity-- the plant workers turned to their last resort: a bank of backup batteries, designed to buy them just a few hours of time. they then made a desperate plea for help, but there was little to be found. the tsunami had devastated the area around the plant, blocking roads, knocking out communications and power lines.
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>> it must have been really dire situation. completely dark, and most worrisome, of course, must have been the fact that they did not have readings of the instruments, and so they didn't really know what was going on in the reactor. >> they had no telephone communication. they sent people out into the parking lots to scavenge batteries from automobiles. and they hooked them together. they got some critical dc power for valve operation and for instrumentation. but you shouldn't have to do that. >> o'brien: tepco then ordered special trucks with generators from another power company. but they soon hit a problem. >> just after the accident we tried to get electricity coming back to the station, but without electricity, it was very tough. it failed. >> o'brien: there was traffic, the trucks couldn't get in?
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>> yes, one of the reasons was the traffic problems. we failed in using electricity cars to cool down units. >> o'brien: unable to restore electricity, the fukushima complex then suffered breakdown after breakdown. (explosions) >> a blast was heard, smoke rising from reactor number one... (speaking german) >> o'brien: over the next few days, the reports grew more alarming: explosions at three reactors, radioactive contamination spewing into the environment. rescue forces rushed to the scene. helicopters, fire fighters, and police with water cannons desperately tried to keep the hot radioactive fuel rods covered with water. on march 15, four days into the
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crisis, the prime minister at the time, naoto kan, addressed the nation. >> (translated): please listen to my message calmly. the emergency diesel engines that should have been used to cool down the reactors have all gone out of function. radiation has spread from these reactors and the reading of the level seems very high. we need now for everybody to move out of the 20 kilometer radius from the number one plant, and in areas from 20 to 30 kilometers, we would like to ask you to remain indoors at home or in your offices. >> o'brien: the unprecedented evacuation would ultimately displace more than 160,000
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people. meanwhile, workers continued their frantic struggle to get control of the crippled reactors. the plant remained off limits to the public and media, photographed only from a distance. but six weeks after the disaster, a member of japan's atomic energy commission, was invited to the plant. shigeharu aoyama captured these scenes with his camera. (speaking japanese) >> o'brien: aoyama documented teams of workers wearing hot,
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uncomfortable protective gear, navigating a labyrinth of air locks, struggling to clean up a huge radioactive mess. he then ventured outside to the destroyed reactors themselves. >> o'brien: is that you? >> yes. >> o'brien: his rarely seen footage, which he shared with frontlinis the most complete record of life inside the plant shortly after the accident. >> this is truly first case of an entrance of that site i play. >> o'brien: wow. (speaking japanese) >> o'brien: his stark footage shows the massive damage caused by the explosions.
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>> o'brien: aoyama photographed the apocalyptic tsunami damage on the plant's ocean side, where the emergency generators and seawater pumps had been. >> o'brien: here and all around the world, nuclear experts were troubled by a vexing question-- how could this happen in japan, a country so well known for its technological and engineering brilliance? (speaking japanese)
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>> o'brien: hidekatso yoshii is a former nuclear engineer and a member of japan's parliament. >> o'brien: it's clear that when tepco designed and built the plant more than 40 years ago, it wasn't prepared for an event of this enormity. as this old promotional film shows, the utility was confident that the plant's sea wall was more than sufficient to fend off whatever nature threw at it. (speaking japanese)
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>> o'brien: in fact, we now know many experts had repeatedly warned tepco for years that a major tsunami could overwhelm the seawall designed to protect the plant. one of the experts, paleontologist koji minoura, began raising the warning flags decades ago. (speaking japanese) >> o'brien: minoura's research was inspired by a famous ancient poem. "do you remember our sleeves wet with mutual tears? in oath never to leave each other as the famed waves of sue-no-matsuyama." it occurred to minoura the poet might have been writing about an ancient earthquake and tsunami. so he dug through some old records-- and sure enough there
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it was-- july 13, in the year 869, a huge quake and tsunami hit japan. it's known as the jogan event. >> o'brien: to look back in time, minoura dug deep into rice paddies far from the sea. there he found a layer of marine sediment that told a clear story: the ocean water reached two-and-a-half miles inland in 869. that's what you did? that's in a rice paddy?
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>> o'brien: minoura didn't stop there. he dug deeper and found more marine layers, clear proof of similar giant tsunamis every thousand years or so, like geologic clockwork. over the course of the next 20 years, he would publish his findings in major scientific journals. >> i regret but nobody paid attention to anything to my thesis. >> o'brien: why not? >> i don't know. >> o'brien: so now people are coming and talking to you. >> but too late, yes. too late. >> o'brien: so what did tepco know and when did it know it? we spoke to a researcher who
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uncovered evidence of a very large tsunami in 869, which i know you're familiar with now. and he published this information 20 years ago. why was that not considered at fukushima? >> we don't know, but i heard that, you know, tepco and people in the education have been talking about, you know, considering that tsunami also. but i heard that we were... we were in the process of considering that, but this accident occurred during that process, i think. >> o'brien: but even if they had heeded the warnings of a giant tsunami, was there anything tepco could have done to protect the plant or was this site inherently too dangerous? is it possible to conceive of a nuclear plant at that location that could withstand what happened on march 11?
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>> i would say so. if the emergency diesel generators had been located in a higher elevation-- not the whole plant, just the emergency diesel generators-- or the batteries had been in waterproof rooms, a lot of this would have probably not happened. >> o'brien: but as it happened on march 11, the operators found it impossible to control the reactor without the diesel generators. here's what nuclear engineers say happened on that awful day. the general electric-designed boiling water reactor used at fukushima and in many u.s. plants is enshrouded in a massive concrete and steel containment structure. inside is a steel pressure vessel, which contains the hot nuclear core. when the tsunami destroyed the backup generators, pumps and valves failed, meaning no more water was available to cool the
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core. the water that remained soon boiled away. >> then you don't have much time. the system heats up pretty quickly. it's not hours, it's hours or less. >> o'brien: the radioactive core began to melt. the steam interacted with the fuel rods, creating hydrogen. as the pressure built up, the explosive hydrogen, along with a witch's brew of radioactive materials forced its way through a relief valve into the main containment structure and ultimately, the outer building. >> we know the hydrogen is most leaky gas. and there's huge air space in the top of reactor building about 17 meter from the refueling floor. >> the hydrogen that was
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produced got into the buildings, the upper floor of the building, and then just pooled. and then, while it would have taken was a small amount of energy-- a spark, a light, anything-- and it would have caused the explosion. >> o'brien: it was an unprecedented multiple meltdown disaster. for the first time since the chernobyl accident in 1986, large quantities of dangerous radioactive materials, about one-tenth the chernobyl release, had spewed into the atmosphere from a stricken nuclear power plant. but tepco's problems were only just beginning. to prevent further core damage, plant workers began feeding seawater into the crippled reactors, but much of this highly radioactive water began to leak through cracks.
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>> apparently there are cracks in the containment and a large fraction of the water that they are feeding into the vessels is coming out into the basement of the reactor building. >> o'brien: and some of it made its way into the sea. >> they think there's a breach somewhere but they don't know where it is. they'll have to get to a situation where they can go in and decontaminate above the reactor and then they can get at what's inside. that's going to take a long time. >> o'brien: four months after the disaster, i came to japan. along the sendai coast, people were cleaning up. the earthquake and tsunami had stripped whole towns from their foundations, killing an estimated 18,000 people.
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life is forever changed here. the big concern here remains the radioactive fallout from the fukushima nuclear explosions. people here are fearful about how much radiation there is, how far it has spread, and the possible health effects. >> very high doses of radiation can kill you within minutes to hours. you get lower, it's not gonna kill you outright but it's going to increase your risk of getting cancer sometime. and then you get down to background levels of radiation, and as far as we know there are no hazards at all. >> o'brien: scientists had been tracking the plume of radiation from fukushima carried by wind and rain to fields, schoolyards and towns. it turns out that while there were hot spots close to the plant and within the plume, in many areas, including some
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evacuation zones, radiation levels were relatively low. >> for the people who have been evacuated, the greatest consequences are gonna be from the loss of their homes and their livelihood. some of those contaminated zones are not gonna be re-inhabitable anytime in their lifetime. compared to the impact of that, their risks of actually getting cancer as the result are very, very small. >> o'brien: when japanese authorities set radiation levels for evacuation, they were conservative. 20 millisieverts per year. that's the equivalent of two or three abdominal cat scans in the same period, i asked dr. gen suzuki. so, at 20 millisieverts, over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk? >> it's 0.2... 0.2% increase in
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lifetime. >> o'brien: 0.2% in the course of a lifetime? >> yeah. >> o'brien: normal risk of cancer in japan is... >> is 30%. >> o'brien: so what is the increased cancer risk? >> 30.2%. so, the increment is quite small. >> o'brien: and yet the fear is quite high. >> yes, that's true. >> o'brien: people are even concerned here, in fukushima city, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation contamination is officially below any danger level. (speaking japanese) >> o'brien: over and above any real health issues, the fukushima accident has disrupted the very fabric of japanese
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life. (speaking japanese) >> o'brien: the fukushima little league team now plays here in taiwa cho, 60 miles away from their home field, which is contaminated. (speaking japanese) >> o'brien: baseball mom hirono koriyama says she's lost her faith in the authorities and nuclear technology.
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>> o'brien: before the fukushima disaster, nuclear energy was popular here. japan's 54 nuclear reactors supplied one third of the nation's electricity and the country had ambitious plans to build many more. after fukushima, public opinion swung. (speaking japanese) >> it was a huge, dramatic shift in japan. it was something like two-thirds or more of the public in a fairly recent poll before the accident in favor of nuclear power, and then right after the accident it was on the order of a maybe 25%, 30% at most in favor. >> o'brien: and that profound shift in public opinion had an
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immediate and unexpected impact on japan's nuclear policy. >> as the reactors are required, roughly every year, to undergo a refueling operation, a maintenance operation, once a plant is shut down, it's not allowed to restart unless there is public support in the local area for a restart. so there are serious concerns that within a year after the fukushima accident started, that japan will have essentially no reactors operating. >> o'brien: the disaster at fukushima triggered a chain reaction far beyond japan. and nowhere more so than in germany. >> ever since fukushima, the german government has been under pressure from the green movement. >> o'brien: long before the meltdown in japan, people here feared nuclear power. i came to berlin to talk to germans about fukushima.
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why are people here in germany so afraid of nuclear power? >> because it's not safe. nobody can tell me it's safe. just look at chernobyl, look to tokyo. >> o'brien: what is it about germans... they have a very strong negative reaction to nuclear power. why? >> i think germans are a little bit more afraid about things which are out of control. we had that accident in russia, and i remember the time here, when i was here in this market, and the people say, "can we go out of our rooms and go still for shopping?" we are a little more afraid of things which we can't control. >> we can't... we can't handle atomic energy. >> o'brien: why not? >> well, all the people who are really in charge and competent know that they can't deal with this kind of energy. >> o'brien: would he like to say something in german about nuclear power?
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>> o'brien: people here are afraid of nuclear power. >> people are very much afraid of nuclear power. they don't want it, they hate it. >> o'brien: claudia kemfert is a berlin-based economist who focuses on energy issues. >> because of the fukushima accident, there was an immediate reaction because germany was shocked and the government had the impression they need to react. >> o'brien: and react they did. they set up a special committee to study what to do about nuclear energy. and put this man in charge of it. >> my name is klaus toepfer. i was honored to be the co-chair of the so-called ethics commission, discussing the phase out of nuclear power. this report was accepted more or less unanimously in our parliament. >> o'brien: nearly unanimous? we don't do much of anything in the united states nearly unanimous. >> i believe it was a clear conviction. we will have the chance to
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change now. and therefore we have to make it a common endeavor to prove that this is a possibility for an economically important country. >> o'brien: astonishingly, for an industrial country of its scale, within a decade, germany is set to shut down all 17 of its reactors. >> o'brien: do you think that the decision is irrevocable? >> i don't think it will change. >> o'brien: you think it's set in stone? >> it's set in stone. >> o'brien: do you sort of have the sense that everywhere you look, with a couple of important exceptions, we are in the midst of writing the final chapter on nuclear power? >> i think it's the final chapter. it is a long chapter, but i think it's the final chapter for sure. >> o'brien: one of the big reasons people in germany have embraced this seemingly rash decision to pull the plug on nuclear power so abruptly is they feel that the alternatives are close at hand.
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for the past 20 years, this nation has invested heavily in renewables with tax subsidies for wind turbines and solar energy. matter of fact, i'm in the largest solar farm in the world at the moment about 90 miles south of berlin. it's kind of surprising to see it in a place like this with such precious little sunshine. there may not be a lot of sunshine but there is plenty of wind here. and the hope is that wind will increasingly replace nuclear. >> we have today 23% of our electricity coming out of nuclear. we can, instead of nuclear, produce the energy in the future out of renewables. our target in the future is to take a part of 50% of the consumption out of wind energy. >> o'brien: germans are making a bold bet: by 2050, 80% of their electricity will come
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from renewable sources. but it's a risk. while people here are already very energy conscious, they will have to become even more so. and without a breakthrough in storage technology, renewables will not be able to provide so-called baseload power-- a steady supply of electricity 24/7. this is something nuclear energy does very well. >> nuclear energy technology was a bridge, was seen as a bridge, in order to have time and to make renewable energy more competitive. >> o'brien: but can you get to that renewable future without the bridge? >> you need a bridge. if it's not nuclear, we have another bridge, and this bridge is now coal in germany because we have already a large share of coal, increasing greenhouse gas emissions as a consequence. and now this share will even increase more and this is not really sustainable as an energy strategy, but you need a bridge and this is coal. >> o'brien: and that is really bad news for the environment.
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in fact, germany's hasty decision to abandon nuclear energy after fukushima has alarmed many climate scientists. one of the most respected of them all, nasa's james hansen, worries that germany, a nation that has signed the kyoto protocol vowing to limit carbon emissions, will end up exacerbating climate change. if everyone pulled the plug on nuclear power, what would be the consequences of that? >> well, then if we don't find an alternative source of energy to fossil fuels, then we will just keep burning them. and that's what's happening. we're... countries are beginning to go after the dirtiest fossil fuels-- tar sands, tar shale, mountaintop removal. all the fossil fuels they can find. unfortunately, what has become clear from the climate research is we can't do that without leaving for our children and grandchildren a situation that
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is out of their control, guaranteeing consequences which are disastrous for future generations. >> o'brien: nuclear power is essential, at least as a bridge, in order to reduce carbon emissions, you feel? >> well, we have not yet found a baseload electric power without carbon emissions other than nuclear power. the hope is that renewable energies like the sun and the wind can be harnessed in ways that would allow them to be baseload electric power. but that requires that you be able to store the energy or move it around the planet very efficiently. and so far, that has not been an economically competitive way to get energy. so fukushima, it's really extremely bad timing. >> o'brien: but not all countries are abandoning nuclear energy.
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china is taking the lead on a new generation of reactors. france, india, russia and others remain committed, as is the u.s. >> steam comes out. what's the first thing that happens? >> o'brien: at mit's nuclear engineering school, the faculty has done the math. these engineers see no environmentally sustainable way to meet the energy needs of seven billion people that doesn't include nuclear power, and a lot of it. so it would be inaccurate to say fukushima is the beginning of the end of nuclear power? >> i would say it will be completely inaccurate, that nuclear has to be part of the solution. it's the only scalable energy source that we have that does not emit co2 and does not rely heavily on foreign imports. >> that crack was not seen and it grew to failure during operation. >> o'brien: a lot of people envision a future when it's all renewable. are we a long way off from that?
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>> i'll be dead, long time. so will you. so will your children. i don't think it will ever be that way, unless we become a pastoral society where the energy use density is low enough. i think nuclear power's got a great future. i mean, i'm biased, i'm a nuclear engineer. >> good morning, everyone. >> o'brien: regardless of the environmental arguments, any nuclear future in the u.s. depends on avoiding accidents like fukushima. >> the commission meets today to discuss the tragic events in japan, and to begin to consider possible actions we may take. >> o'brien: nuclear safety in the u.s. is the responsibility of the nuclear regulatory commission , an agency with a staff of 4,000 and five politically appointed commissioners, led by chairman gregory jaczko. to what extent is what happened at fukushima kind of a complete surprise to the whole nuclear industry worldwide?
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>> i think there wasn't really the full appreciation for what the impacts could be from a tsunami and how that flooding could disable almost all the electrical distribution systems. so, what was really new, in a way, was the fact that here was something we hadn't really envisioned that could take out all of these basic safety systems. >> o'brien: america's 104 nuclear reactors may not face high risks from a tsunami, but they have to be prepared for earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, fires, potential terrorist attacks, or, as happened last summer in nebraska, a historic flood. in june, the swollen missouri river flooded the ft. calhoun nuclear plant. nrc chairman jaczko went to see for himself. >> the level at which there's an impact on the safe operation of the facility is still about six
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feet from the core. >> o'brien: jaczko could make that claim, in part, because of nrc actions at ft. calhoun before the flood. >> last year, nuclear regulatory commission inspectors found that that plant wasn't protected against a flood the way it should be. the company argued that it's... "what's the chance of it happening? it's been that way for 20 years." the nrc resisted all that and mandated those fixes be made. flood barriers were put in, watertight doors were installed. ft. calhoun was a stellar example of the nuclear regulatory commission taking proactive action to protect people living in nebraska. >> o'brien: so just to be clear, had the nrc not intervened as they had in advance of that flood, what would have happened there? >> the flooding at ft. calhoun may not have triggered a meltdown, but it would have severely eroded the defense in depth. many of the barriers, many of the pumps would have been under water and unavailable. >> o'brien: nuclear engineer dave lochbaum, who monitors the u.s. nuclear fleet for the union
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of concerned scientists, says the nrc hasn't always been so proactive. >> the biggest concern i've had with the nrc over the years i've been monitoring them is lack of consistency. they're a little bit slow at solving known safety problems. >> o'brien: like earthquakes. take the case of the north anna plant in virginia. these two reactors were among 27 around the country that were identified in the 1990s as seismically under-designed, but the nrc required no corrective action. then, last august... >> just outside the north anna nuclear power plant, which is just a few miles from the epicenter, we just got here, we have some information regarding... >> o'brien: ...a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook the eastern seaboard, centered just 11 miles from north anna. while the quake was bigger than the plant's designers had planned for, north anna did just fine.
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the plant automatically shut down, and four backup diesel generators kicked in, keeping the plant cool until power was restored. a bullet dodged. but no thanks to the nrc, according to dave lochbaum. >> north anna experienced an earthquake larger than it was designed for. but the reason it came out so well is its owner voluntarily upgraded its seismic protection when they knew about the hazard in the early '90s. the nrc didn't require owners like of north anna and others to fix it. so fortunately, we got the challenge at a plant where the owner had already taken steps to defend against it. >> o'brien: critics say the nrc's worst record for inaction is fire protection. 35 years ago, a fire here at the browns ferry nuclear plant in alabama led to new federal fire protection standards. but today, 47 reactors still don't meet those standards.
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and remarkably, one of those noncompliant plants is browns ferry itself. >> browns ferry today doesn't meet the regulations adopted because of the browns ferry fire, and that's just unacceptable. >> o'brien: why do things tend to languish at the nrc? >> i wouldn't say that things move slowly. i think we... >> o'brien: 30-plus years-- that's pretty slow, isn't it? >> well, i think in that 30 years we've made a lot of changes to the fire protection program. i think we still have some lingering issues that we want to get resolved. >> o'brien: that must be a little bit frustrating though to still be discussing this so many years later. >> i think it... it's something we need to get behind us and for the very simple reason that new issues will come up. of course, fukushima is probably the most important one we're dealing with now. we know that the likelihood of something like a fukushima accident happening here is very, very low. but we know it's not impossible. so we want to make sure we act quickly enough because i think the biggest failure would be for
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us to have this kind of a situation happen, not employ the lessons here and to have something like that happen in the united states. >> o'brien: which brings us back to indian point. a fukushima-style accident here, less than 50 miles from the lower tip of manhattan, would certainly mark the end of the u.s. nuclear industry. 17 million people live within 50 miles of this plant. and that's one reason plant operator entergy's application for a 20-year renewal is proving so controversial, >> you're looking at unit two... >> o'brien: the company says it spent a billion dollars on upgrades and that an accident like fukushima couldn't happen here. >> the problem in japan was they weren't able to cool the reactors. we have six sources of off-site power. we have three emergency diesel generators on both units. i have two more redundant emergency diesel generators. either one's capable of safely shutting down the unit. they're located at four
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different elevations, four different areas of the plant. some are in bunkers you were in, one's elevated at least 40 feet above where the water is. >> o'brien: this is a contentious license renewal, the most contentious, i think we can agree on, right? why? >> well, we're in a metropolitan area. when the plant was built back in the '60s, because unit one was actually commercial in 1961, there was people who didn't want it here then. but we are a valuable asset to the community here, in many ways-- in the air quality, we're a low-cost provider of electricity, therefore we hold the price of electricity down in the area. and, in fact, if you look at our life extension, if we operated 20 more years, just the union labor would earn over $1.3 billion in earnings at today's salary. >> o'brien: the plant has its passionate critics. >> we've had some earthquakes in the eastern and central u.s. >> o'brien: lynn sykes, a columbia university geologist,
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has spent years arguing that the indian point plant is not fully prepared for earthquakes. two seismic fault zones intersect one mile north of the plant. so the ramapo fault, which you discovered... where's indian point? >> indian point is right here. >> o'brien: right on the fault. when they were designing indian point, this was unknown. >> this was unknown. the original design for indian point one barely mentions earthquakes except to say that this region is quiet compared to alaska and california and japan, which is true. >> o'brien: if they were designing the plant today, says sykes, the nrc would certainly take into account the newly discovered seismic data. let's start with the earthquake and paint the series of sequences that worry you that could lead to a loss of water and lead to that release of radioactive material. >> right. so one would be if the reactors
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themselves are damaged by an earthquake that is large enough to crack critical components of that system. >> o'brien: that would be a pretty big quake, wouldn't it? >> well, it could be a magnitude six. if you have an earthquake that is very close to indian point, it doesn't take as large an earthquake to cause damage, and particularly if it's shallow. >> o'brien: and yet you still live here. >> i still live here. i live 17 miles from indian point. >> o'brien: how much concern does that give you? >> it gives me a fair amount of concern, and one of the reasons is that indian point is closer to more people than any other reactor in the country. >> o'brien: not all experts agree with lynn sykes. other geologists claim the ramapo fault is not seismically active and entergy insists indian point could handle a magnitude 7.0 quake.
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the fuel that is in there is all the fuel that unit three has ever used in the course of its history? >> yep, since 1976. >> o'brien: so you're full? >> this pool is basically full. we have an application pending with the nrc. >> o'brien: nonetheless, with all the radioactive material on site, sykes' work raises an important question: if a powerful earthquake triggered a series of unforeseen events leading to a release of radiation like fukushima, how would so many people make their way to safety? one mile from the plant is the village of buchanan, new york. there is an evacuation plan. >> there are several different routes throughout the village. all of our residents receive a copy of the guide on a yearly basis. as you go through the village, you'll see little blue signs that say "evacuation routes, such and such," which are all discussed in that guide. >> o'brien: but many people who live here do not believe the plan will work. >> rush hour in this area is
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impossible. i mean if it rains at all it's impossible, much less, you know, a nuclear crisis. (honking) >> o'brien: this is the evacuation route. this kind of says it all. it's hard to imagine it standing the test of a real emergency. if you try to imagine everybody getting in their cars, getting on these few, limited little roads and trying to get away from that plant, it just doesn't seem to add up. what it will be is total gridlock. in the coming months, the nrc will decide on indian point's request for a 20-year extension. unless the state succeeds in blocking the renewal, it's unlikely to be denied. after all, 71 reactors have already been relicensed.
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but this suggests a looming problem. >> today, the united states has the largest number of nuclear reactors in the world-- 104-- but they're all old plants. unless we make a decision to build new reactors, we're headed toward a retirement cliff of our reactors 20 years from now. >> o'brien: and that will have tremendous consequences, won't it? >> that's right. i think by mid-century we'll essentially have no nuclear plants operating in the united states, and by default, eventually phase out nuclear power, you know, 20 years from now. >> o'brien: back in japan, nearly a year after the accident, the consequences of fukushima can be seen everywhere. it took until december for the workers to stabilize the reactors, finally achieving
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so-called "cold shut down." as for decommissioning the site itself, that's an immense job. >> there's probably a ten-year plan before they can get into the reactor building. and then it goes on from there. so it'll be 25, 30 years, probably. >> o'brien: tens of thousands of evacuees are still unable to go home until the contamination is cleaned up. >> you can scrape the earth off, but it's still going in the vegetation, it's going to be in the ground, it's going to be everywhere. some of the areas outside the plant in the fukushima prefecture are still have dose equivalents of hundreds of millisieverts per year. i think we're talking about a large zone which is permanently uninhabitable and i don't think the risk benefit calculations
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take into account the possibility that you're not just evacuating people temporarily. you are evacuating them for generations. >> o'brien: and perhaps the most significant consequence for japan is this: due to public opposition, only six nuclear reactors remain operational. by may, experts estimate, every one of japan's 54 reactors will be shut down. >> next timfrontline... >> meth has destroyed this community. >> methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug... >> she looked 20 years older than she was. >> ...made from a highly profitable pharmaceutical. >> cold medicine is a $3 billion dollar moneymaker. >> can this epidemic be stopp?
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>> back home, it was tearing lives apart. here in congress, it was as if there was no problem at all. >> "the meth epidemic," a frontline investigation. >> frontline continues online. >> indian point is right here. >> right on the fault. >> get information on the nuclear power plant closest to where you live. >> here was something we hadn't really envisioned. >> read more about the nuclear energy debate in the u.s. >> we are a valuable asset to the community. >> those known safety problems need to be fixed. >> find out how other countris are rethinking nuclear energy in the wake of fukushima. and watch the full program online. follfrontline on facebook and twitter, or join the discussion at >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting.
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major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. and by reva and david logan, committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by tfrontline journalism fund, with a grant from millicent bell through the millicent and eugene bell foundation. major funding for this program is provided by the alfred p. sloan foundation, supporting public understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. captioned by
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